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Tech conferences' spotlight shifts away from product launches

Andy Rubin debuts the Essential Phone at Code Conference 2017. Photo: Asa Mathat for Vox Media via Getty Images

Not that long ago, what people wanted from a tech conference was to hear from executives about the next shiny object coming down the pipeline.

What's new: Nowadays, tech CEOs aren't talking about what's fresh from their corporate ovens — instead, they're the ones being grilled.

What's happening: At this week's Code Conference, not one product debuted on stage, and there was precious little discussion of what companies had in the works.

  • Facebook did say, without giving details, that it would have new hardware later this year for its Portal in-home video station.
  • Twitter spoke in the broadest of terms about some new features coming to the service, like a kind of message more public than a DM but more private than a tweet.

The big question: Mostly, speakers from the Big Tech companies were pressed on what they were doing to fight hate and misinformation.

  • Critic Scott Galloway called for the breakup of Facebook and representatives from immigration rights group RAICES slammed large tech firms for helping enable family separations and other misdeeds at the border.

Contrast that with years past, where the event (and its predecessor, the D: All Things Digital conference) regularly served as a product launch pad, such as...

  • The world got its first look at Bing and Windows 8 here, along with some classic flops like the Palm Folio.
  • Siri debuted here when it was still a startup, and Steve Jobs once used the show to launch Apple's Airport Express wireless networking device.
  • More recently, this is where Andy Rubin showed off the Essential Phone.

To be sure: Code has shifted focus some over the years, and there are still plenty of tech enthusiasts and lots of venues devoted exclusively to product launches.

  • This week's E3, for example, was all about the next video games and consoles, while CES has all the product launches one could want (and then some). Plus, the big companies have largely followed Apple's lead and now host their own events to give major products their own stage.
  • The tech world also got excited over leaks about Google's upcoming Pixel 4. Google even upped the ante, tweeting its own real photo of the rear camera array from its official hardware account.

The bottom line: Some people want the latest gadget. Some people want answers to what's gone wrong in tech. And some of us want both.

Go deeper: Big Tech grilled on hate speech, accountability at Code Conference